Evidence for non-genomic transmission of ecological information via maternal behavior in female rats

Genes Brain Behav. 2007 Feb;6(1):19-29. doi: 10.1111/j.1601-183X.2006.00214.x.


Maternal behavior is flexible and programs offspring development. Using a novel manipulation, we demonstrate that rat maternal behavior is sensitive to ecologically relevant stimuli. Long-Evans hooded rat dams (F0) and pups were exposed to a predator condition (cat odor) or a control condition (no odor) for 1 h on the day of parturition. Predator-exposed F0 dams displayed significantly more maternal behavior (licking/grooming, arched-back nursing) relative to control-exposed dams across five subsequent observation days. Female offspring (F1) were raised to adulthood, bred and maternal behavior was observed. F1 dams reared by a predator-exposed F0 dam displayed significantly higher maternal behavior relative to F1 dams reared by a control-exposed F0 dam across 5 days of observation. Increased levels of maternal behavior in predator-reared (PR) F1 dams were evident even in F1 females that had been cross-fostered (CF) from a control-exposed F0 dam, suggesting a non-genomic transmission of increased levels of maternal behavior. Lactating PR F1 dams had significantly elevated estrogen receptor alpha and beta mRNA in the medial preoptic area relative to control-reared (CR) F1 dams. Furthermore, among CR F1 dams, there was no significant difference between those dams that had been CF from predator-exposed F0 dams and those that had been sham CF. These results support the hypothesis that flexible rat maternal behavior can shape offspring development according to current environmental conditions. The results also suggest that estrogen signaling may be part of an epigenetic mechanism by which changes in maternal behavior are passed from F0 to F1 dams.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Environment*
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / metabolism
  • Estrogen Receptor beta / metabolism
  • Female
  • Lactation / metabolism
  • Lactation / psychology
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Smell / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*


  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • Estrogen Receptor beta